In an exclusive conversation with Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas chief talks about how Assad should have listened to his advice, and why he’s not “bloodthirsty” or “against” Jews.
DOHA, Qatar — In January 2012, Hamas abandoned its ally, Bashar al-Assad, cutting itself loose from the Syrian regime and relocating its headquarters from Damascus. Syrian state media launched a broadside against Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in response, referring to him as "ungrateful and traitorous," and Iran reduced its financing (estimated at $20 to $30 million per year) of the movement. Meanwhile, Meshal now notes that he's "not against the Israelis because they hold a different faith," and championing the virtues of democracy, diversity, and human rights. So, what's gotten into Hamas's chief?
In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, his first face-to-face talk since being re-elected last month, Meshaal explains why he chose to walk away from his benefactors. "[The Assad regime] took the wrong option -- they were wrong about their vision toward the conflict. Not only toward their internal conflict in Syria, but toward the whole Arab Spring," Meshaal told FP. "People aspiring for democracy and freedom should have been dealt with through political arrangements to meet their rightful aspirations. This would have reinforced the power of the country, the bonds between the people and their leadership, and it would have been for the best interest of the country."
To replace his alliances with Syria and Iran, Meshaal built strong ties with rising powers such as Turkey and Qatar -- countries that, far from being international pariahs, have strong working relations with the United States and Europe. The Qatari emir's visit to Gaza in October marked the first blow to international efforts to isolate the Hamas government there, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan soon plans to visit the strip as well.
Meshaal told FP that Hamas "felt a responsibility to extend all advice we can" when protests against the Syrian regime first broke out in March 2011, with the goal of achieving a quick solution to the crisis. Last month, journalist Nicholas Blanford, quoting an anonymous Western source, reported that Hamas had presented Assad with a seven-point program for defusing the crisis, which included open elections and Assad's eventual resignation. In both Meshaal's and the Western source's account, however, Assad ignored Hamas's recommendations.
"After all the efforts we have done with the Syrian leadership, we felt that nobody was listening," Meshaal said. "With the bloody developments in the Syrian Spring, we knew that the Syrian leadership wanted to use Hamas [to bolster its legitimacy]. We had no choice but to respect our beliefs, our principles, our values -- and we felt that after 10 months that we had no choice but to leave."
Meshaal made the case that the Assad regime -- by trying to resolve the conflict through brute military force rather than a political agreement -- paved the way for the violence that grips the country today. "[A political solution] would have spared Syria a lot of misery, a lot of casualties, a lot of the destruction and bloodshed that we see today," he said.
The Israeli-Palestinian arena
Describing his agenda for his new four-year term at the head of Hamas, Meshaal emphasized one issue above all others: The need to end what he described as the "occupation" of the Palestinian people's land, and the "atrocities" being committed against them by Israel.
"[Palestinians] are suffering from the settlements, they are suffering in the detention camps and the prisons of the occupation," Meshaal said. "[We aim] to stop the suffering of our people in Jerusalem, as they are suffering from the Judaization of the city... We want a real peace that would regain the rights for our people."
Hamas has traditionally opposed a two-state solution -- a position it reiterated earlier this year. Meshaal has denounced Secretary of State John Kerry's recent attempt to revive the peace process, saying that he "[does] not have a serious project or vision," and that his efforts are doomed to failure. He also rejected the Arab League's endorsement of land swaps between Israel and the Palestinian territories as part of a peace deal.
In his interview with FP, Meshaal once again made the case that the blame for the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute does not lie with the Palestinians. "Israel is the one responsible. Israel occupies the lands ... they are practicing the worst kind of killing," he said. "The international community should work on the real problem -- not ask Hamas, the Palestinians, or the Arabs what do you see on this detailed issue or that. The Palestinians and the Arabs have given a lot of flexibility, the utmost flexibility toward resolving the issue."
One of Meshaal's top priorities is also achieving reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which dominates Palestinian politics in the West Bank. Relations between the Palestinian factions have been fractured since Hamas's armed takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and Meshaal accused Kerry of exerting an American "veto" over the reconciliation during his recent visit to the region. He did this, according to Meshaal, as part of his efforts to revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. "The Palestinian Authority has been financially extorted -- financial pressure has been exerted on [it] to impede the reconciliation steps," he said.
But Meshaal also signaled that Hamas's differences with Fatah over the legitimate means of opposing Israel are narrowing. The Hamas chief said that military resistance remained an integral part of his movement, but also endorsed non-violent methods favored by President Mahmoud Abbas.
"The [military] resistance of Hamas is a means to an end, it is not a goal by itself," Meshaal said. "Popular resistance is another option, as is diplomacy, work in the media arena, and to try to make the occupation pay the price of its crimes in the legal arena."
Hamas would be open in principle to negotiations with Israel, Meshaal affirmed, though the reality on the ground today made such talks pointless. "The most important condition for negotiation to succeed is the balance of power, because without [it]... no peace can be achieved," he said. Attempting to engage the Israelis diplomatically without proper leverage, he argued, meant negotiations "would be turned to begging, begging for the rights of our people."
If the past two years tested Meshaal's political acumen, the challenges ahead appear even more daunting. Extricating Hamas from Damascus was only the first step: Meshaal still must grapple with an escalating regional war in Syria, fellow Palestinian leaders that mistrust his intentions, and Israeli and American governments looking to destroy Hamas rather than negotiate with it. But with a new array of allies and a firm grip over Gaza, Meshaal seems keen to present Hamas as a movement with a rightful place on the international stage -- and one that can't be ignored by the other players in the Arab world, as much as they may want to.
"We are not fanatic killers. We are not bloodthirsty people," Meshaal said. "We are not against the Israelis because they hold a different faith, or because they are from a different race. Our problem with them is because they are occupiers of our land. When the occupation ends, we will work according to our values and our ethics.... And those values are democracy, justice, human rights, and respect for our diverse world."
Mohammed al-Hams/Khaled Meshaal's Office of Media via Getty Images